All-American: Tupelo can use award for leverage

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Yay. Tupelo won its forth All-America City Award. What an honor. What a feat.
Um, what exactly does it all mean?
According to Mayor Jack Reed Jr., earning one of the 10 annual designations from the National League of Cities is the municipal equivalent of “winning a national championship.”
“It’s something Tupelo will absolutely be able to market and use,” Reed said. “It’s like the hospital winning the Baldrige award. The ripple effect of this will be felt for a long time.”
Tupelo received the honor Friday in Kansas City, Mo., where its team of delegates had spent the week competing against 25 other finalists. Each had been picked from hundreds of hopefuls during the first phase of the competition in April. Communities that made the cut had described their solutions to three community challenges.
Tupelo chose the revitalization of its former fairgrounds into downtown’s new Fairpark District, the innovative care of senior citizens at the Green Houses at Traceway; and the tackling of childhood obesity and learning problems through the Mayor’s Task Forces on Education and Health.
For its previous win, in 1999, Tupelo had highlighted the Lee County Families First initiative, the Good Samaritan Free Clinic, and the Historic Downtown Neighborhood revitalization.
“I facilitated that competition, so when I came back after we won, I really pushed the recognition,” said Zell Long, a former city employee and current chief professional officer of the Boys amp& Girls Clubs of North Mississippi.
“We got the logo painted at the water tower and started using it on the city letterhead and put it up on the street signs,” she said. “It expresses pride in the community.”
Long also traveled along with this year’s delegation.
Previously, the city had earned All-America City designations in 1989 and 1967.
With its fourth win, Tupelo joins an elite cadre of 13 communities nationwide with more than three wins to their names – seven have won four times; six have won five times.
In all, more than 600 cities across the United States can claim at least one All-America City designation – 11 of which had been awarded annually from 1949 to 1972, and 10 of which have been awarded annually since 1973.
Tupelo is the only city in Mississippi to have won the award multiple times. Other state communities with prior wins are Meridian, in 1988, and Hattiesburg, in 1991.
Tupelo’s repeated wins help elevate its status nationally, said Marty Wiseman, executive director of Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government.
“I’m in meetings all over the county and … people for some reason have heard of Tupelo and will always say, ‘What’s the deal with that city?’,” Wiseman said. “Something has gotten Tupelo on the national radar screen for being very successful. I think these national awards like the All-America City that Tupelo has earned … have helped.”
Cities can apply for the award as often as they want, but Reed said it’s difficult to compete more than once a decade or so. That’s because it takes years to cultivate the kind of successful, grassroots projects the judges like to see.
But Tupelo has – and should – compete whenever it’s feasible, said CREATE Foundation senior vice president Lewis Whitfield, who had participated in the 1989 and 1999 competitions.
“The All-America City award is a great affirmation of community development over the long haul,” he said. “Particularly in Tupelo’s case, having won it four times … is important because I believe it says to the nation that we have had effective community development for a long period of time, and I also believe that’s been important for marketing the city.”
The Community Development Foundation indeed touts Tupelo’s repeated wins as part of its business recruitment strategy, said CDF President and CEO David Rumbarger.
“We use it all the time,” he said. “In Tupelo, the All-America City award is like the Underwriters Laboratories seal. It’s the approval of peers that gives Tupelo a little bit of an edge.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.

THE BIG THREE
In its application for the 2011 All-America City Award, Tupelo cited three novel approaches to solving community issues relating to blight, the elderly and quality of life.

1. FAIRPARK DISTRICT – A 50-acre urban renewal project that transformed a blighted tract of downtown space into a family-friendly destination and the new seat of city government.
The project began in 1999 with $22.7 million in bonds from the city to buy up property and redevelop the area. An oversight board was appointed – the Tupelo Redevelopment Agency – and its members managed the project and marketed the area to families, businesses, eateries and entertainment venues.
City Hall eventually located there, as did several restaurants, boutiques, businesses and the new Hilton Garden Inn. With its sprawling park and playground, Fairpark has become a draw for families to enjoy concerts, picnics, festivals and other activities taking place there throughout the year.

2. MAYOR’S TASK FORCES ON EDUCATION AND HEALTH – Volunteer citizen-led initiatives that got residents off the couch and into their track shoes and put children’s books into the hands of new mothers.
When Mayor Jack Reed Jr. took office two years ago, he established these task forces to address the city’s most pressing issues. Since then, they have organized citywide weight-loss challenges, a mayor’s marathon, left, free activity weeks, and healthy snack counters at convenience stores.
They also hosted a citywide emphasis on childhood reading, with free story time events at the BancorpSouth Arena and free editions of “Goodnight Moon” for every baby born at the North Mississippi Women’s Hospital.
These groups have partnered with existing entities, like the Tupelo Public School District and HealthWorks! to broaden their reach.

3. GREEN HOUSES AT TRACEWAY – Ten senior-living residences that broke the mold of the old skilled nursing care institutions and focused instead on human relationships.
Each Green House accommodates 10 to 12 elders who live together in a home-like environment with open kitchens, a family dinner table and a central living room with a fireplace. It’s a far cry from the institutionalized settings that house dozens or hundreds of residents tucked away in their separate rooms.
The Green Houses were the idea of Dr. Bill Thomas, a nationally known geriatrician who decided to build the prototype in Tupelo.
Since opening in 2003, the residences have attracted national attention and spawned a series of copycats throughout the United States.

Mississippi’s All-America cities
- Three cities in the state have won All-America City awards:

- Tupelo – 1967, 1989, 1999, 2011

- Hattiesburg – 1991

- Meridian – 1988